THE BLOG
08/19/2008 03:12 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama: Hope for a Change

Seems like everyone has advice for the Obama campaign. Democrats grouse in the New York Times that he better start putting "meat on the bones" of his hope and change rhetoric. Paul Krugman sensibly calls for some passion on the economy. Even Mark Penn, fresh off his incandescent performance in Hillary Clinton's run, agrees, sort of.

With Democrats racking up double digit leads in party ID, and what Republicans call their "brand" debased, McCain is running basically even with Obama in the polls. No wonder folks are starting to get worried.

This isn't time for hemlock. Imagine if, a year ago, someone had bet you that a black anti-war candidate named Barack Obama, barely three years into national office, would be running neck and neck with John McCain for the presidency. Not many of us would have put our money down. That said, there is significant cause for concern.

Part of the reason that McCain is still in this race is that, to date, the campaign has been almost entirely a referendum on Barack Obama. The Obama campaign has been focused on reassuring people that they should feel comfortable voting for a young African American with a funny name. The McCain campaign, once Rove's minions took over, has been focused on scaring people from voting for what they paint as the inexperienced celebrity with a funny name and a mysterious past. Obama's campaign foolishly discouraged support for independent expenditure committees. No one is really talking about McCain. Obama wins a race that is a choice; he could lose one that's simply a referendum on him.

And this is part of why people think Obama hasn't really said anything beyond "hope and change." In fact, he's put out detailed policy papers on all range of subjects, readily available on his web site. He's devoted many speeches to detailing different policies. But he's done very little clear contrast with McCain -- and it is the contrast -- the contesting of ideas and direction that gives a sense of passion and of substantial differences.

People -- most of whom will only start paying attention with the conventions -- want to know what he is for. Not what his policy positions are. But what he will stand and fight for. Where his steel is. And how that relates to the challenges they face. None of this is helped when he retreats on issues like trade or flips as on the wiretap legislation. But none can be determined without drawing a forceful contrast with McCain and taking him on.

McCain, of course, is a perfect setup for contrast, since he's offering mostly more of the same Bush policies that have proved so calamitous -- more top end tax cuts that have generated the slowest growth in sixty years and contributed to Gilded Age inequality, more corporate trade policies that have hemorrhaged manufacturing jobs and left us dependent on the kindness of Chinese central bankers, more billions devoted to the debacle in Iraq, etc. John McCain, same old, same old.

So why hasn't Obama gone after him? Why haven't we seen some populist fire so clearly in order?

Part of this is surely self-restraint. Obama, the essence of post-modern cool, wants to avoid appearing to be "an angry black man." And he clearly sees that as central to what has contributed to his remarkable success.

Part of this, I suspect, is a strategic choice. Obama had the same test in three primaries against Hillary (Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana): convince white workers that you understand their plight and that you will fight for them. He failed it in each occasion.

Now this is a brilliant and remarkably talented leader, both thoughtful and skilled rhetorically. He is not a person who flunks tests. So I suspect he chose not to pass them because he had another strategy in mind. Seeking to assemble to a broader suburban, upscale, independent, young, disaffected Republican coalition, he may have decided that a more populist posture would cost him as many votes as it attracted.

If so, this is a mistake. Obama is winning about 75% of self-described Democrats. He's doing fine with women, including former Hillary supporters, contrary to all the posturing. He's got to consolidate older and white working class Democrats. They want to know whether he will stand up for them. And they have good reason to be suspicious. It's not simply race, although that is surely part of it. Obama is the epitome of an urban professional, a man whose success, education and life sets him apart. Ask Al Gore and John Kerry, the resulting cultural suspicion would apply even if he were white.

On the other hand, showing folks that he would fight for them won't alienate the broader, new coalition that he's trying to assemble. Women, the young, independents, older Americans, disaffected Republicans -- all are concerned about the economy, all think we're deeply off course, all are looking for a dramatic change. Putting an edge on the contrast between his policies and McCain's would help, not impede, assembling that coalition.

Moreover, Obama needn't abandon his cool to bring some heat to the campaign. He simply needs to use his rhetorical gifts to sharpen the contrast between McCain's old and failed agenda and his own.

For example, McCain has sought to make trade a centerpiece of his campaign, even stumping in Mexico and Canada in support of NAFTA. Obama should take him up on this -- but he needn't imitate the populism of a Bernie Sanders or Sherrod Brown, as successful as that is, to make his point. McCain is frozen in an old fraudulent debate about free trade against protectionism. Obama should dismiss that as a fool's choice.

The reality is that our corporate trade policies -- of by and for global corporations and banks -- can't be sustained; they are making us increasingly dependent on the kindness of foreign creditors, like the Chinese bankers.

The challenge is a fundamental one to our society -- how do we sustain a broad and prosperous middle class in a global economy? More of the same won't get that done, as the middle class is now sinking -- despite working harder , longer and with greater productivity than workers in every other industrial country.

We need to start with a clear measure The success of this economy is not whether multinationals are profiting. Corporate profits have reached record levels, but wages have stagnated. The success of an Obama economy will be measured by whether working families are prospering, whether wages are rising, jobs are more secure, health care and education is affordable and available.

For this we need a dramatic change in course. Current trade deals are simply an expression of corporate lobbies. So no more -- until we forge a national strategy that works for working people, not just special interests. A centerpiece of this must be an Apollo Plan for energy independence, a concerted drive, creating jobs here by investing in efficiency and renewable energy, while seeding the research to capture the new green markets of the future. We need to reward companies for keeping jobs here rather than shipping them abroad - unlike McCain's profligate tax breaks for corporations which will reward them no matter where their jobs are going. We have to invest in education and training, in infrastructure and research and development so we can sustain a high wage path in a global economy -- unlike McCain's plan to lavish more tax breaks on the wealthy while cutting investments in vital domestic programs. We have to push for new global rules that raise standards for the environment, workers, consumers and small investors. We have to curb the casino financial speculation which is destabilizing the real economy, contrary to the advice of Phil Gramm, McCain's financial guru who is an officer in UBS, a bank now under investigation illegally abetting billionaires seeking to avoid paying US taxes. And we have to challenge the mercantilist nations like China that are playing by a different set of rules, putting companies on notice that that we will pursue more but balanced trade with Beijing. FInally, we have to make certain that workers capture a fair share of the increased productivity that they have produced. That requires empowering workers to organize. And it requires insuring basic economic rights -- starting with affordable health care -- that aren't at risk if you lose your job.

Can we sustain the foundation of our democracy -- a broad and prosperous middle class -- in the new economy? To meet that challenge, we can't keep digging the hole we are in. And it isn't enough just to stop digging -- although that would be a good start. We've got to chart the way out. And on that, McCain does not have a clue.

Now Obama's rhetorical gifts are far greater than mine. He can make this less abstract, develop it with stories about real struggles. But by expanding the trade question into what it is -- the question of a national strategy in a global economy, he can change the terms of the debate on the future prosperity and security of this country in a manner that McCain simply can't answer. He can draw the contrast by raising the stakes -- and summoning people to challenge the entrenched interests that stand in the way.

Krugman says what is missing is passion. Obama isn't about to become a passionate, kick ass populist rabble rouser. That's not what brought him this far. But he can challenge McCain forcefully -- on trade, on growth, on health care, on Social Security and Medicare, on national security -- in a way that grounds his argument in the struggles of working families. He can draw the contrast between his ability to mobilize the energy of people with McCain's ability to collect checks from special interests. He can show some steel, even while retaining his cool.

There are only a few times when campaigns can retool. The leadup to the Democratic Convention, when Obama got off the campaign trail, is one. The week of the Republican convention is another. After that, the race turns into a sprint, so the basic themes, contrasts, attack lines have to be in place. If Obama is going to sharpen this race, now is the time.